Build a Better Albany: Aaron Blair’s Plan for Downtown Revitalization and Albany’s Future

Laurel Griffith

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Albany business leaders aren’t the only ones asking these questions. A quick Internet search reveals dozens of mid-size cities and small towns working to attract and retain this important group of people. Aaron Blair, Albany’s Downtown Manager, says large companies need qualified people to be successful and that need has created a business trend seen throughout the United States. Today, corporations increasingly follow the young professional. 

Blair understands the twenty-something and thirty-something population. “These people are attracted to places that offer a vibrant night-life, a variety of cultural opportunities and a tapestry of people.  Young adults want opportunities to work and build their careers. They want to connect with other people and to contribute to the community where they live.”

He points to Charleston, South Carolina as well as cities in North Carolina as examples of what happens when downtowns become more attractive. “First, downtowns develop an environment that engages young professionals and then they witness the progression. Larger companies follow.  There is a spirit about these places.  We need the spirit alive here in Albany, too.”

When he moved to Albany a year and a half ago, there wasn’t much life downtown.  Blair’s first strategy was to pursue the artists and musicians who lived in the Albany area. He explains the decision.  “Creative people generally gravitate to each other. Frequently, they have the right temperament to be a part of something where they take a risk. We wanted to find the people who were willing to participate in the creative rebirth of our city.” 

The Nights@dtown, “Deck of Arts”, began as a way to bring the creative community together, allowing them to showcase their work.  Blair says the monthly event is proof that “talent draws talent.”   

“Deck of Arts” exploded in popularity drawing more artists and greater crowds.  “We started with five or six artists a year ago and now we routinely have more than 20 who appear.  As the event became more popular, the network of people who supported downtown revitalization grew as well.”

Success does not surprise Albany’s Downtown Manager. Although the event is geared toward young professionals, Blair says art and music cross all demographic lines. All kinds of people, of varying ages, attend each month. The attendees have come for the experience and get a taste of the atmosphere and the energy. “The area is on the rise and gaining awareness. The energy is palpable, just like the art.”

Blair says previously unknown artists have recently been hired for large commission pieces.  “There have been pockets of people doing things all along, but the revitalization effort has provided them a central location to do things together.” Artists, drawn together through their experience with the “Deck of Arts”, formed the D’town Arts Coalition. This group pursues a variety of projects designed to promote art and draw people to downtown. 

New businesses followed on the heels of the artists. That’s no surprise either, but rather part of Blair’s revitalization strategy.  He says most of these are stable. “The ones that didn’t make it failed because of the same reason businesses don’t make it in other locations.”

Eighteen months into this revitalization venture, the business and creative communities are coming together, and many are benefiting from the partnerships.  “Our current group of influencers has a sense of pride as early adopters of the new d’town.” People are making downtown their neighborhood. They don’t live there yet but Blair believes it is just a matter of time. 

As the progress continues, new people will be attracted to downtown and Blair believes Albany will see their young professional population begin to grow. 

Downtown will always be a creative place to live and work, but the real goal of revitalization is to build a community of like-minded people. The people who form this new community come from a variety of backgrounds and can’t be pegged to a specific demographic. Blair says they do share a common vision and belief in what downtown can become.  

Blair says, “Successful downtowns are a hub for new ideas and creativity. We want to give people the opportunity to build their own business, to work in their trade. We want them to know they can be successful here. “

About Laurel Griffith

Laurel Griffith is a freelance writer. Before moving to Albany, she published a magazine for six years in Dothan, AL.